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How can you develop an anti-racist church? 


There is an enormous duty on every member of the church to fight against racism, writes Ruth Tiso


Black History Month has now become parcelled into British history, although its rise to prominence in public consciousness, particularly within our schools and churches is very recent, first celebrated in October in Britain in October 1987, and built on an event which began in the United States as long ago as 1926. There became a willingness to: (1) promote knowledge of Black History and experience; (2) disseminate information on positive black contributions to British society; and (3) heighten the confidence and awareness of black people in their cultural heritage. It is very uncomfortable to talk about race within any context, yet, if we are going to learn to live together as a family all created in the “image of God” in our diversities, then it is important to learn to listen to other people’s painful experiences, concerning race and racism.     

Speaking for myself, Black History Month symbolises the hardships that my family faced in the past, as well as the hand of God at work in our multi-cultural community both then and now. A bit about my background: I was born in Ghana, West Africa but my parents were relocated to South Africa in the mid-1970s during the period of apartheid. Even the thought of it now brings back horrific memories of the mistreatment, feeling demeaned as a young child and deep pain brought from insults, segregation, and other revulsions that no human being should ever endure. The Anglican church we went to welcomed foreigners but was divided along lines of nationalities; often the Black South African group at one side of the church and immigrants at the other. This experience made us children and our parents feel like ‘others’, receiving ambiguous generosity and hospitality within church. On one hand, we were warmly welcomed into the church, and on the other, we were perceived as foreigners who did not belong.   

Despite all this, I joined my school Scripture Union and looked forward to its weekly activities and its emphasis on inclusion. The sharing of the word and worship helped me through those days. The Scripture Union gave me a good foundation and prepared me for what has been a difficult journey. Our family experience in South African under the apartheid regime was traumatic.

It is interesting to note that Scripture itself acknowledges different races and ethnicities all made in the image of God. In Jeremiah 13:23 we read “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil”. The writer recognises that skin colour is God-given and one has no control over it. Perhaps, for this very reason, both the recognition of human diversity, inclusivity and welcoming the stranger with open arms are at the very heart of the biblical tradition. 

In the instruction given to the people of  Israel in the Book of Leviticus 19:33-34, there seems to be an acknowledgement that treatment meted to the outsider will be the litmus of obedience to God’s covenant. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God." 

Zechariah 7:9 gives a similar message “Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners who live among you, or anyone else in need.” The question is how is a stranger or foreigner to be detected? Perhaps, their accents, ethnicity, race, culture, rituals and different ways of worship will give them away. At the root of the instruction is the biblical acceptance again that all human beings are created in the “image of God”. It is this realisation and confidence that Jesus taught: "Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark12:31).     

So, for the biblical writers, racism was real. “Race” was not. The idea that human biological differences show distinct boundaries that define, and separate populations is a fallacy. Although racism rests on an erroneous premise—the assumption that biological “race” is real, divisions and exclusions on this part are abhorrent. Racism is a cultural pattern that is real enough to produce dire social consequences. Racism is real enough to affect what happens to live people on the ground, in specific places, in real-time within churches. Yet, despite its concrete effects as my family experienced in South Africa, racism rests on the assumption that certain individuals from different races are inferior to us - they are perceived as not being made in the “image of God”.

The Church calling to be an anti-racist institution rests on her theological understanding that all human beings are created equal in their universal mission. Implicit in the Great Commission is the anti-racism agenda. To embrace Jesus’ command “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

This command to reach out to all nations implies that the church is to be multi-racial. However, we cannot reach out to all nations and hold on to the assumptions that other people are less than the “image of God”. To recognise that others do bear the image of God as we are is to recognise equality, justice, and fairness for all. When St Paul, the great missionary said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he was making an anti-racist comment. Even Paul saw that slavery and racial injustice fell short of God’s standards.     

Developing an anti-racist church demands transformation of the mind. Paul’s instructions to the Romans “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will”, presents a challenge to the human tendency for both inferiority and superiority complexes that are not from the Spirit of God. 

In conclusion, to recognise all human beings irrespective of their biological races created in the “image of God” is part of the church’s universal mission to reach out to all peoples, ethnicities, tribes, and cultures. This places an enormous duty on every member of the church to fight against racism. Yes, we live in an imperfect world; however, we should practise in our churches John’s vision in Revelation 7:9 “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands”.

We must stand together in the unity of Christ, despite our differences, to move forward as an anti-racist church.

 

Ruth Tiso is minister of Pear Tree Baptist Church, Derby

 


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